E.g., 04/25/2024
E.g., 04/25/2024
Local Integration: The Forgotten Solution

Local Integration: The Forgotten Solution

Most refugees spend years living in border zones, in unsatisfactory and unsafe circumstances, with few means to support or educate themselves and their children, and few prospects. Their legal status in the host country is uncertain. They are not granted full asylum, nor are they likely to be resettled in a third country. These protracted refugee situations are characterized by a "care and maintenance" or "warehousing" model of assistance in countries of first asylum, meaning that the basic needs of refugees residing in camps are met.

Local integration is a currently neglected, long-term solution that presents an alternative to refugee camps. In the broadest sense, this means permanently settling refugees in host communities in countries of first asylum. This concept has lately received little attention from host governments and donor agencies. The concept is attracting revived attention, however, for its potential to promote economic development, protect refugee rights, and provide long-term solutions to persistent crises.

Local integration has never been broadly implemented in developing countries. True, many host governments, particularly in Africa, have allowed "self-settlement" of refugees without official assistance in local host communities. But local integration has rarely been pursued systematically or formalized in a way that gives refugees a secure legal status.

Only a small number of governments, including Uganda, Mexico, and Belize, have offered local integration opportunities to refugees who cannot or do not wish to repatriate. In both developed and developing host countries, the preference is for temporary protection and restrictions on refugees, including channeling them into camps, pending their repatriation.

The opportunities and challenges offered by local integration are outlined below.

Refugee Integration Scenarios
Paths to refugee integration vary widely. Some of the most common scenarios are described below.

Full integration refers to refugees who are granted asylum, residency, and full and permanent membership status by the host government. Under these circumstances, refugees acquire the protection of the host state and enjoy the full range of economic, social, and civil rights accorded to permanent legal residents, including access to citizenship under the same terms as others.

Local integration may take place when it is not safe for refugees to return home after a prolonged period in exile. In such cases, a host government may decide to allow refugees to integrate locally, in the first-asylum country. Local integration may or may not lead to permanent residence and eventual citizenship.

Self-settlement occurs when refugees share local households or set up temporary accommodation, and are assisted by local families or community organizations. Self-settled refugees have no legal refugee status within the host country. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), although recognizing the refugee status of this group, is unable to provide any formal protection. These refugees are often active in the local economy despite legal restrictions on such activities.

Encampment means that refugee camps are purpose-built and administered by UNHCR and/or host governments. Food, water, and services such as schooling and health care are provided by relief agencies. Refugees in camps are not expected to be self-sufficient, and camps are seldom planned for long-term use or population growth. Host governments and many relief agencies prefer camps not only because they make managing assistance easier, but also because they are believed to facilitate repatriation. This belief exists not least because austere camp conditions make staying less attractive.

Organized or local settlements are planned, segregated enclaves or villages created specifically for refugees, but which differ from camps in that refugees are expected to become self-sufficient pending their repatriation. There is limited freedom of movement outside official areas of residence, more permanent housing construction, and access to land provided by the government.

Opportunity and Flexibility

In countries of first asylum, refugees settle in different ways and continue to move between various settlement options over time. Camps and other assisted settlements are relatively porous. Refugees frequently leave camps to engage in trade, find work, explore repatriation and resettlement options, join family members, enlist in rebel movements, or investigate options in urban areas. They may return to the camps when food is scarce, or when there are external security threats. In turn, local people use refugee camps and settlements for the health facilities and markets, and refugees use local markets and land.

In short, few solutions fit neat definitions, and potential difficulties are everywhere. In many long-running refugee situations, local integration can be a viable and productive solution that promotes the human security of both the refugees and the host country. The evidence for this is that self-settled refugees, who significantly outnumber officially assisted refugees, survive without depending on any official assistance programs, by relying on their own resourcefulness, the support of the local community, and access to economic opportunities in the region.

However, not all refugee-hosting areas can support local integration, and a careful determination must be made about an area's stability and security. Where it appears that local integration would create new or additional problems, other options for refugees must be developed. In every case, it is essential that the merits of local integration or assisted self-settlement be carefully considered before it is pursued. Generally, integration is a better alternative than channeling refugees into camps ("encampment"). There may, however, be circumstances under which encampment is preferable (e.g., see section below on security).

Local integration may be desired and therefore promoted by host governments when it is seen as augmenting economic development. Host countries can encourage this positive outcome by enabling the economic viability of refugees and by allowing them the rights and freedoms to which refugees are entitled according to international law. Freedom of movement, for example, enables refugees to be economically active and participate in the local economy. As part of a comprehensive integration approach, refugees could be given access to land, and to the social services and employment opportunities available to nationals. In this way, host governments and UNHCR could support and facilitate refugee economic productivity, which would ultimately benefit both the host country and the refugees.

Supporting Local Integration

A government's decision to pursue a local integration program raises complicated questions about implementation and cooperation with other agencies. Designing international assistance programs that enable local integration is a tricky matter, because these kinds of programs fall into the infamous "gap" between relief and development. Host governments are reluctant to assign development-earmarked funds to projects involving non-nationals, and development agencies see refugee assistance as the prerogative of relief agencies. Promoting local integration will require that donor communities shift priorities away from repatriation and resettlement.

Lessons learned from other relief-to-development programs can be applied. A comprehensive institutional approach that involves many key players has been effective for reintegration programs in areas of conflict. Such an approach could work for local integration in peaceful, less-marginalized areas. Key criteria for successful local integration programs are that they should be sustainable, and that they should benefit both refugees and their host communities. Local integration programs should seek to fit with the development policies and programs of host governments.

While local integration can be a positive approach in and of itself, it is important that such programs be linked to repatriation programs. Such links could promote a strategic regional approach that creates joint communities, diversifies the economy, and stimulates development in both the refugee-hosting area and the home-country areas to which refugees return.

To Integrate or Not to Integrate?

Refugees' population characteristics and attitudes play a key role in successful integration. Interest in integration may depend on whether an individual refugee sees prospects for repatriation or resettlement in a third country. Some refugees initially view their stay in the host country as temporary, but over time, if other options do not materialize, this view changes, and some seek to become integrated. If refugees hold onto the hope of repatriation, and continue to view their situation as temporary, they may resist integration or any form of settlement that might obstruct this hope.

For their part, host governments' degree of receptiveness to the idea of local integration tends to depend on three key factors:

  • The real and perceived security threats that accompany refugees
  • The perceived or actual economic and environmental resource burdens
  • The attitudes and beliefs of both refugees and locals about the refugees' length of stay

Security Concerns. A frequent argument made by host governments is that refugees bring security problems to the refugee-hosting area, and that it is therefore better to restrict them to camps where these problems can be controlled. Indeed, there is evidence that refugees import with them the security problems of the regions they flee, and create new crime and security problems. It is also true, however, that refugees are often blamed for pre-existing social or economic problems such as rises in crime and insecurity, declining standards of living, and public health crises like AIDS. In recent years, the governments of Kenya, Tanzania, and Thailand, among others, have acted on this belief and insisted that all refugees live in camps.

It is worth noting, however, that placing refugees in camps often worsens security problems for both the host country and the refugees. In addition to military problems like raids or direct attacks on camps, camp culture and organization can create a climate of violence and intimidation. Camp conditions often lead to high rates of violence against women and children, and few camps are organized to address such problems since they typically lack effective systems of law and order. And since most camps are not closed entities, the problems of crime, violence, and militarization leach out into the surrounding community.

On the other side of the security coin, international organizations do provide some security in refugee camps. Locally integrated and self-settled refugees may be only somewhat less vulnerable than camp dwellers because their lack of protection services from international organizations can leave them subject to petty crime and other problems in the host community.

Economic and Environmental Concerns. Many host governments believe that refugees should be restricted to camps or settlements so that they are less likely to compete with locals for scarce resources and infrastructure. Host communities fear they will lose land and access to affordable homes, schools, and health facilities as a result of population influx.

Some of these strains, however, could be offset by international assistance. Such aid could fund the construction of new schools or health clinics for the local population and the refugees, thereby alleviating local fears.

Land constraints are also of concern, but largely dependent upon the region. Mexico's Chiapas region, for example, is characterized by longstanding struggles over land. Under such circumstances, locals are more likely to resent and resist refugees having access to land. When permitted access to land, it is possible that refugees will increase its productivity.

Communities also fear that refugees will compete with locals for jobs. But in situations where unemployment is already high, refugees do not cause unemployment, and refugees generally remain economically disadvantaged compared to locals.

Beyond the economic sphere, environmental strains such as deforestation, water pollution, and overuse of rangeland are also especially feared, particularly in the initial stages of a refugee influx. However, the environmental impact of self-settled or locally integrated refugees must be compared with that of camps. Empirical findings by researchers have indicated that self-settled refugees are much more flexible about selecting environmentally sustainable locations, or in adopting more sustainable practices, than their counterparts in camps.

Community Relations. The success of integration depends as much on the relationship between the local population and the refugees as it does on the host government's position. When refugees are welcomed and accepted by the locals, or at least not resented, they are better able to make a living. They also face fewer security threats.

Host communities sometimes view refugees as unfortunate guests who will return to their own country when they are able. This belief motivates local people's initial willingness to accommodate refugees within the community, but also explains why refugees do not easily become integrated into host communities. Resentment can result when underlying assumptions of impermanence are proven to be false, and either a new influx occurs or refugees remain. Where patterns of mobility and prior migration characterize the host society, refugees are less likely to be viewed as temporary guests who should move on and out.


In situations where refugees must remain outside their homeland for a long time, local integration can provide a realistic alternative to refugee camps. However, the success of local integration depends on the cooperation of host governments, the local community, and the refugees themselves. If such a program threatens the security and stability of either the local community or the refugees, it is not an option. If, on the other hand, such concerns are addressed, economic development, better respect for human rights, and more cooperative relationships can combine to create long-lasting solutions.